Rights Activists Slam Kyrgyzstan for Unjust Anti-Uzbek Life Sentence
Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court has “utterly failed” and given into unfettered ethnic hatred in a case that was “blatantly fabricated,” say international observers, after it upheld a life sentence on bogus charges against an ethnic Uzbek human rights defender. Azimjan Askarov was found guilty in September 2010 of inciting ethnic violence and complicity in murdering a police officer in his native town of Bazar-Kurgan during the ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that June. Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Western governments called the charges against Askarov—a prominent human rights defender and journalist in southern Kyrgyzstan—politically motivated and decried the trial as staged, biased and unfair. During the December 20 appeal hearing, the Supreme Court also upheld sentences against seven other Uzbeks (including five life sentences). Uzbeks, Kyrgyzstan’s largest ethnic minority, have faced widely documented intimidation and abuse by authorities since the ethnic bloodletting.The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in a December 16 statement urging the Supreme Court to overturn the Askarov conviction, said that maintaining the verdict would be a “major miscarriage of justice.” “The case was riddled with blatant flaws from start to finish, and it is astounding that the court didn’t order a thorough investigation into the way it was conducted,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a December 21 statement. Askarov was “denied his right to due process with a flawed prosecution and trial on charges that were blatantly fabricated," said the Committee to Project Journalists’ deputy director, Robert Mahoney. "Askarov's conviction is a clear attempt to suppress reports of abuse by Kyrgyz authorities and sets a chilling precedent for freedom of expression in the country." Constitutional provisions for fair trials in Kyrgyzstan are excellent. Article 26 says that everyone is considered innocent until proven guilty, that guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and that no one shall be compelled in a criminal case to bear witness against oneself. Article 16 promises that everyone is equal before the law and two separate articles forbid torture.But in practice, torture is common and the courts are deeply distrusted. A national poll conducted earlier this year found that only 21 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of the courts, while 65 percent held unfavorable opinions.Askarov’s lawyer, Nurbek Toktakunov, told the 24.kg news agency on December 21 thatKyrgyzstan’s courts are bolstering Kyrgyz ultra-nationalism, which has raged since the ethnic violence, and said the courts had not considered his complaints of torture and the “complete falsification” of the criminal case, but instead, out of fear for their own safety, “make decisions to please the nationalists.”In a December 2010 Ferghana.ru video cited by Human Rights Watch, Askarov said of his jailers: “They beat me continually for three days. In the investigator’s office two police officers stood next to me and demanded: ‘If you don’t want to write about weapons, then you will say that you were on the bridge [where the murder took place].’ Every time I refused they beat me on my kidneys from both sides at the same time. [It felt like] my lungs would jump out.”In recent months, many had hoped former President Roza Otunbayeva would use her international clout to overturn the verdict in the weeks before she stepped down, on December 1. Instead, she ignored the case to the disappointment of those who thought she was truly committed to reform in Kyrgyzstan. In many eyes, Askarov will remain a dark stain on her record.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.